Determining the fate of civilization's hemlines, Paris fashion shows are about ego, power, and sex: They're a fast-paced, action-heavy Hollywood dream of a drama. That's what director Robert Altman was betting, anyway, as he hit the shows this month for his pseudo-documentary Prêt à Porter (French for ''ready- to-wear''), a mix of fiction and fashion footage. But while some glamour makers preened in the presence of such cast members as Julia Roberts, Sophia Loren, Lyle Lovett, Lauren Bacall, Kim Basinger, and Forest Whitaker, others' feathers were royally ruffled.
Karl Lagerfeld barred Altman and his crew from his show; Dior extended an enthusiastic welcome but alienated all-important fashion maker John Fairchild of Women's Wear Daily in the process. ''The invitation to the (Dior) show said that if you came, you would be giving implicit permission to be in the film, and that's what Fairchild reacted to,'' explains WWD executive editor Patrick McCarthy. ''He felt that if Altman wants permission to have him and staff members in the film, he has to ask.''
Altman did ask CNN's style maven, Elsa Klensch, who leapt at the chance to improvise with the actors. ''We weren't allowed to refer to the stars except by their characters' names,'' says Klensch. ''If we forgot what those were, we were told to call them Darling.''
The underlying fear is that Altman will savage the fashion world the way he hammered Hollywood in The Player. Actress Lili Taylor (Short Cuts), who plays a feminist photographer, thinks the couture coterie will be safe, at least as far as her character is concerned. ''This is the movies,'' she says, ''where the truth can be stretched a bit.'' Of course, that's exactly why some of the players are proving so inflexible.